Pruitt’s office is perched at the apex of the LocUS Tower. More than twice again the height of the Needle, it is by far the tallest structure in the elongated Seattle/Sound ganglia.
The office’s outer wall follows the tower’s convex arc and Pruitt’s window to the outer world is centered in the arcane rune seen upon approach. Its nacreous glow is not apparent from within. Instead, a panoramic view northward and west presents terrain, bulwarked against the encroachment of Puget Sound and smothered in a layer of civilization. The high ceiling appears open to the blue sky, random clouds, and crystalline sunlight.
At the center of the curved inner wall, a flush double doorway parts to admit Pruitt and Hergenrather. Pruitt, scanning the space for the man assuming his position, observes an unfamiliar addition to his office decor.
An angular pillar has been placed near a corner of the window-glyph, totem-like, a slender, towering silhouette of unfamiliar design. It does not occur to him that Mr. Gray has preceded them until the figure turns without haste to regard them.
Bruce Newton Pruitt is a practical individual with many years of exposure to circumstances that would be considered by most, unconventional, possibly even bizarre, and by them he’s been hardened. He would characterize himself, if pressed to do so, as a man not easily surprised or frightened.
There is, however, a particular sensation one encounters when confronted with a reality so dramatically beyond one’s previous experience, so strange and startling in its aspect, size, and proximity that reason gives way to primal response.
Mr. Gray is shockingly inhuman, more obvious as it moves forward to stand over H’seven, more than twice his height.
A clenching thrill begins in the muscles of Pruitt’s perineum and races up his spine like an electric shock into his skull. His scalp prickles and the sensation elicits an unconscious shudder he wishes he could rescind.
A quick glance to Hergenrather for some sign of how to react offers no purchase in this encounter. He appears unfazed, but his voice has assumed an uncharacteristic, formal tone. “The D’nal will be taking over Directorship of all LocUS and ACMe operations, although D’kin Remert will continue in his current capacity at the old facility for the time being.”
If intended to lessen the gut-level impact of this initial introduction, it falls short.
At least two meters tall, at a guess, Kudlac’s skeletal physique is clad in what appears a close-fitting gray body suit and draped in intricate black and tan vestments. They look heavy. They look like some kind of armor.
Long, ropey limbs loosely attached to a sinewy, bi-pedal frame give him a hominid appearance and there is, in that, some degree of familiarity, but there all similarity ends.
His is not a human face. His flesh is slate gray. It looks hard, metallic. At first Pruitt imagines it might be some kind of mask, but that prospect flees as its real nature becomes obvious. It has an inverted triangular shape with an enlarged cranium and a pointed chin—a face like a splitting maul; Pruitt’s racing mind makes a connection.
Kudlac’s broad, hairless dome, flattened on top and elongated toward the rear, sports a high, wide forehead. A conspicuous lack of external ears reinforces the thing’s freakish symmetry.
A triangular arrangement of three tiny, lidless eyes, alight with a faint reddish glow like embers, reside above what might be a nose, a low, thin spline bisecting that long face. Set wide apart to either side of this ridge, bulbous lidded eyes also hint at a ruddy light of their own. To Pruitt’s budding distress, all five of the D’nal’s ocular organs appear to be fixed upon him with a penetrating urgency.
At the inverted base of this alien visage, a trio of slit nostrils, each fitted with what might be a filtering medium, crowd together just above a small, lipless mouth. It parts, producing a sound like a brass instrument with an open spit-valve, shaping itself at the last into syllables.
“I am Mr. Black’s designated Minister of the Change,” the thing says. Its voice is as distressing as its appearance.
“I am honored by your presence, D’nal Ku…”
“You were not invited to speak. Be silent.”
A hot flush of indignation threatens to further perturb Pruitt’s already precarious composure.
Kudlac breathes. “I have already spoken remotely with D’kin Remert. He has provided specific points of current reference, preliminary to your own formal, detailed narrative.”
The bellows works beneath the D’nal’s raiment.
“Our presence is required at the facility you refer to as ‘The Reservation’. There I have business with D’kin Remert, after which I will hear your summary.”
Another inhalation, less strenuous.
“Our transportation will be arriving momentarily.”
“Your pardon, D’nal?” Pruitt is unwilling to remain dismissed.
Kudlac’s silent deliberation is long and inscrutable.
“At our best speed, the facility is almost two hours away. With your permission, I will provide what information you require during…”
A visceral turbulence seems to center itself in Pruitt’s lower intestine. He winces.
“… during our…”
Darkness flows from every direction, from beneath furnishings and every shadowed corner, drawn to a nebulous blackness only a few meters away from where Pruitt’s shoes now seem bolted to the floor.
A wave of pressure bears outward from a blunted pyramid maybe three meters high and wide, a daunting triangular mass shrouded in pebbly, iridescent flesh. A few sheared-away scraps of furniture, arranged too near the thing’s point of emergence, fall away from its flanks in pieces.
The long curve of the room that seemed capacious moments before appears considerably less so now, hosting this great, monolithic occupancy in its midst. Pruitt’s face is a snapshot of naked astonishment, taking in the arrival’s enormity and the simple, unarguable fact of its existence.
Another sigh from Mr. Gray ends in enunciation. “Our transit will be a matter of moments, Mr. Pruitt. Prepare yourself.”
The weird, but essentially humanoid Kudlac presents one barely supportable mental gymnastic to overcome, but this… thing; he can almost feel the ponderous weight of its presence. And something else. Beyond the inexplicable nature of its entrance, there is a truth Pruitt knows with absolute certainty and without the least cognizance of how that knowledge has revealed itself to him.
This thing is alive—a being of unfathomable capability and purpose.
Kudlac’s voice from somewhere above him speaks directly to the outgoing Director’s incredulity. “Mr. Black has allowed us the employment of his emissary’s unique means until our mandate has been realized.” An open-handed gesture indicates the massive pyramidal form.
Kudlac utters something unintelligible and the pyramid alters, a change so improbable that Pruitt fears he has begun, or perhaps continues, to hallucinate.
Where the thing had claimed a broad footprint within the chamber just a moment before, in its stead resides an impossibility. A two-dimensional triangular shape dominates the space before them. Blackness fills its intangible envelope. Kudlac’s odd, swaying gait carries him past the two humans to stand at the verge of that ambiguous depth and he turns to summon them forward with an altogether familiar gesture.
“It is a doorway,” he pronounces, “bridging the interval between this space and the remote facility. Step forward and into it as I do.”
With another lurching motion, the D’nal disappears into the portal. Pruitt turns his face to his erstwhile friend, but that one is unmoved, glaring into the equilateral emptiness.
Pruitt’s feet carry him with their own shuffling volition to the aperture. Nothingness beckons. His rational mind cringing in apprehension, he steps through. The membrane engulfs him and he is gone.
Hergenrather’s approach to the portal stalls at its threshold.
From out the blackness, Pruitt’s voice calls to him. It has a breathless, bewildered quality. “Jacob, it’s… this is astounding! We are here. Just like… it’s just like a doorway; just as the D’nal said. Perfectly safe. Come ahead.”
H’seven steps back away from the gateway. “I think not. I’ll see you there in two hours.”
“Are you serious? Why don’t you…”
A huffing sound emanates from the opaque distance. It precedes Kudlac’s odd, zephyr-driven speech. A curt string of unrecognizable syllables ensues and the portal dissolves into empty air.
H’seven aims a vicious scowl at the space vacated by Mr. Black’s monstrous emissary. His glower sweeps the room, perhaps seeking a focal point for his enmity, finding none.
A synaptic cue opens a comm channel. “Mrs. Stafford!” Almost a shout.
The response is prompt. “I’m here, sir.”
“A jump-craft should already be prepped for travel in the east bay. Verify its readiness and obtain clearance for departure with best speed to the Reservation. I will meet you there in fifteen minutes.” Her crisp acknowledgement is curtailed as he refreshes the call-out mode and barks, “Desk!”
“Desk. Yes, Mr. Hergenrather.” A matter-of-fact female voice. “How may I…?”
“Shut up and send a maintenance person to the loft. The new Director had a god-awful bout of explosive diarrhea in the washroom and there’s drizzling shit everywhere.”
The operator’s professional equanimity requires but a moment to reconcile itself to the Deputy Director’s colorful description. “Yes, sir. I’ll send a crew up right away.”
“Just one will do.”
“I beg your pardon, sir?”
“What’re you, fucking deaf? I said just one. Send the big, leggy brunette with the lazy eye. What’s her name? Margaret. I like her. Send Margaret up.”
There is a brief, but distinct hesitation from the Desk.
“You got a problem, Betty?”
“It’s Jane, Mr. Hergenrather. No, sir. I’m alerting her now.”
“Well, chop chop, Betty! Tempus fugits like a motherfucker! Can’t you feel it?”
“Yes, sir. I believe I can.”
. . .
Margaret’s uniform is in an odd state of disarray, as though she’s attempted to contort herself out of its utilitarian confines without success. Slumped backward on the toilet seat, her heels are tapping out an aimless simulation of walking on the tile floor. Her body twitches, synapses firing crazily in a randomized imitation of function.
Conspicuous against what had once been a tidy stack of brunette tresses, now disheveled, a shiny titanium straw projects from the top of her skull. The tube’s exposed end is in H’seven’s mouth. His cheeks are drawn in and a muffled slurping sound issues from the once-hermetic containment of Margaret’s cranium.
His head tilts back with a distant expression. A creamy warmth with a milkshake-like consistency eases down his throat. Even the slow fade-in of an optic-stim fails to intrude upon H’seven’s appearance of bliss.
The image of the communication’s initiate is, of course, instantly recognizable and almost any other recipient would respond without delay. Instead, H’seven takes another long pull from the pipette and swallows with undisguised relish. He lifts Margaret’s arm, wipes his mouth on the sleeve of her uniform and pats her on the shoulder.
“I’ll be just a sec, sweet pea. Don’t go away.” He accords her a wink she may not be able to see, but she manages a little jerk. Her hand raises, flutters, and falls limp again.
“Sonder,” H’seven calls to the air.
The air responds in a soothing, masculine tone. “H’seven.”
“Make a note to Doctor Ahn. The liquefier works as expected. The counteractant is still bland. More salt. More heat. Deliver.”
“That’s all,” H’seven says. A glance at the time on his wrist tattoo suggests there is little to waste. He sucks up another cheekful of Margaret’s cerebrum with an indolent expression.
The Announce and Accept protocol intrudes behind his eyes with an inconvenient urgency.
Phil Bettencort appears a man near his physical limits, slumped in a chair behind the famous desk in the Oval Office, the one his previous boss no longer needs. H’seven’s avatar, in contrast, is an ominous near-silhouette framed in a dead, grayish-green backlight.
“Mr. President, I didn’t expect to hear from you so soon after you told me last night to go fuck myself,” he says.
Bettencort’s face has not had time to age since President Bascomb’s shocking death yesterday afternoon and his abrupt elevation to the Office of the POTUS, but he looks haggard. His eyes are puffy with drooping bags under them. His jowls did not seem as pronounced yesterday. He appears exhausted.
“I didn’t…” he begins, catches himself, and starts over. “Mr. Folt recommended that I contact you directly regarding this. We have a problem, Jacob.”
“What do you mean ‘we’? Is it my problem?”
“In a sense, yes. The Vigil satellite network shows two incoming objects, sightings corroborated by observatories and RT stations around the globe. I’m told they appear unrelated to The Stir phenomenon, but we don’t have enough data to confirm that.
“I’m being told composite models indicate a ninety-eight percent probability of land impact in thirty-one hours if their current velocity and trajectory don’t deviate. They say either one is capable of damage at a level similar to Arizona’s meteorite crater. Point of contact for both will be northwest United States, specifically, the Puget Sound area. Right over your head. You might consider that your problem.”
“Not really. My overnight bag is always packed. I can be out of here in a matter of minutes. I still need what I needed yesterday, Phil.”
“I told you then, Jacob. I don’t have the authority to override the…”
H’seven breaks the connection.
Turning back to Margaret, he leans in over the metal tube and draws more warm, liquefied mater, rolls it in his mouth as he would the smoke from one of his cigars, savoring the fact of it more than the flavor.
“Yeah. More salt.” He smacks his lips. “And a splash of Carolina Reaper.”
Bettencort’s announce imposes itself again.
H’seven responds this time without delay. The tone from his silhouette is adrip with cordiality. “Mr. President, I didn’t expect to hear from you so soon after I told you a minute ago to go fuck yourself.”
Mr. Folt’s angular face assumes focus rather than Bettencort’s and his features are cast in stern, uncompromising lines. His voice is the sharp implement of one used to being obeyed without question.
“Mr. Hergenrather, you are to give President Bettencort your full support and accommodation. This is a far more serious issue than your personal manhunt, which I order you to set aside until this threat is resolved.”
“Sonder,” H’seven says, his voice pitched for Folt to hear.
“If Mr. Folt is still an active participant in this exchange five seconds after my mark, I want you to silver-bullet the little fucktard.”
H’seven pauses just long enough to enjoy the sound of a stifled outrage from the toothpick man with the faceted glasses.
“Have you gone insane, Hergen…”
The corners of H’seven’s mouth twitch upward in a smile reminiscent of a child’s innocence. He holds up five fingers and begins to fold them down one by one.
Folt opens his mouth perhaps to issue a warning or a curse, stammering instead. His face, a mask of fury, disappears.
Seconds later, the President’s drawn features resolve in its place.
“Jesus Christ!” Bettencort blurts with something almost like amusement. “Folt just stormed out of here with his panties in a wad. What did you say to him?”
“What I said to him isn’t nearly as important as what you’ve got to say to me. You want me to realign a HelioStation and vaporize a pair of incoming space rocks with it for you and, I swear to some God or other, Phil, I’d love to do that just for the sheer fun of it. I know your people are perfectly willing to absorb the astronomic cost of that repositioning and it sounds like it’s in everybody’s best interest. So let’s get down to what I want, why don’t we?”
“We’ve been over this already, Jacob. I don’t know, maybe I can…”
“I’m hanging up now, Phil.”
“ALL RIGHT! All right, goddammit!” A long pause is marked by Bettencort’s breathing, as though he’d just sprinted uphill. He clears his throat with a hoarse cough. “All right. I’ll get it done for you somehow. I’ll pull some strings with…”
“This afternoon, Phil. My window of opportunity is closing, same as yours.”
“You don’t know what you’re asking.”
“This isn’t an ‘ask’; it’s a transaction. Given the gravity of the situation, I can barely comprehend why you’re dragging your feet at all. I’d think you’d be desirous of a swift and unambiguous conclusion to your little problem, save millions of lives and the single largest functioning segment of the West Coast infrastructure and, you know—shit like that. Why are you acting like such a fucking bureaucrat instead of taking care of business?”
“Because I have people I have to answer to, just like you do.”
H’seven’s laugh is light, humorless, fueled by a joke Bettencort cannot fathom.
“Well, you’re half right. Once you deliver the authorization codes I require, your targeting information on the incoming threat will be relayed to our Operations. After that, resolution only hinges on a clear line of fire.”
Bettencort’s relief is tangible.
. . .
The last of Margaret’s motor functions are disengaging. A serious tug is required to dislodge the metal straw from her head. It separates with a wet sucking sound revealing a wicked beveled tip. H’seven rinses the tube in a stream of hot water from the sink, dries it on an air-blade, caps the sharp, and returns it to his inside coat pocket.
“Desk,” he says.
“Desk. Yes, Mr. Hergenrather.”
“Betty, I’m giving Margaret the rest of the day off. It was a nasty job and I want to reward her for being such a good sport.”
“Of course. May I speak with her before she leaves?”
He traces Margaret’s slouched form with his eyes. “I’m afraid she’s already gone.”
“I apologize, sir. I show her locator still in the executive suite.”
“Really? She must have dropped it during the clean-up. I’ll find it and have someone run it back down to you later with her cart.”
“Of… course. Thank you, sir. Is there anything else I can…?”
But H’seven has already broken the connection.
. . .
Charli’s G-suit is, aside from being as unflattering an item of attire as any she’s ever worn, is a marvel of engineering. ‘Fluid muscles’ integrated into the suit’s material help maintain circulation and reduce the potential for loss of consciousness while operating at high G. It’s heavy, yet hugs her body in a most intimate fashion. She feels oddly self-conscious in the thing as she completes her pre-flight circuit of the jump-craft.
The compact, medium-range vehicle is not going to be her favorite. It’s a sleek, sexy-looking airsled; no mistake about that—stubby reverse-swept wings and a canard on a trim needle of a fuselage. The Q-powered thrusters are capable of propelling the craft at or near Mach six peak and will cruise at four all day long.
Routinely, this particular craft is employed for shuttles between the Seattle compound and the site in New Mexico they call ‘The Reservation’. The trip is guaranteed to be hard and fast. G-suits and inertial dampers cannot completely mitigate the stress of maneuvering at or near hypersonic speeds. For her, such trips are bound to be rigorous and painful. Still, she signed up for the job and this mercurial missile came with it.
Her hazy reflection in the surface of the hand-held scowls back at her. “The complaint department is closed,” it says. “Don’t you have something to do?”
She is sealing the access panel over the quarrmalyne plant status port when Mr. Hergenrather strolls into the hanger bay whistling a merry tune.
During her brief exposure on the job, her boss has demonstrated two reliable modes of expression. One is a surly animosity, occasioned by a ferocious impatience, and an astonishingly creative ruthlessness. The other, scathing sardonic humor, a cruel scalpel slicing intended victim and bystander alike, without regard for sensibility or consequence. Upon occasion, these characteristics are employed concurrently.
It is an unachievable exercise to square what she’s experienced of Mr. Hergenrather’s personality to the perky melody preceding him across the bay as he approaches at full-pucker.
His jaunty, piping tootle ends on an impressive triple-tongued warble as he halts only a couple meters away at the short stair to the passenger cabin.
“Sounds familiar,” Charli risks light conversation. “What’s it called?”
“If memory serves, it’s a classic from nineteen seventy-two entitled ‘Rockin’ Robin’.” He sounds positively congenial.
An affable Hergenrather is confounding.
“Hmm,” he says, the sound of a man pondering. He turns a puzzled look to the hanger ceiling. “That’s funny. It just came over me.”
He turns his perplexed expression back to his pilot. “You know what? I think I’ve got it. There was a maintenance person upstairs in the tower just before I left. It must have been on her mind.”
He laughs, a private merriment. It reverberates within the cavernous aerodrome, its vibration decaying moments later until nothing remains but his numbing Antarctic stare.
“Why do you ask?” he says.
Charli forces a half-smile. “Catchy tune.”
Rather than attempt to bear the frigid pressure of his gaze, she finalizes and uploads her pre-flight documentation with a series of finger calisthenics across the hand-held’s surface. Her eyes return to his with a practiced subordination. “We’re ready to bounce when you are, sir.”
Charli pats the aircraft’s flank.
Hergenrather pivots to the stair and climbs toward the open hatch. “Best speed, Mrs. Stafford.”
“Your G-suit, sir. I’ve laid it out in the…”
“Don’t need it,” he says stepping through into the cabin. “Get this piece of shit in the sky. If you make me late, you’re going to walk home.”
The hatch seals behind him.
“Well, that’s more like it,” Charli sighs with something like relief.